If At First You Don’t Succeed …

All Sam Martin wanted was to lessen his fuel costs, and he’s finally on the right path for his operation now that he’s burning coal to heat his greenhouses. But Martin’s journey to the right fuel source had its twists and turns. Lessons were learned, Martin got an extensive education in a variety of energy sources and others can use his experience as a reminder of what to do when exploring non-fossil fuels–and what not to do.

Martin’s journey is unique because he has employed three different alternative energy systems–wood, corn and coal–in response to a recent rise in propane prices. Martin is heating four greenhouses that span about 20,000 square feet, and he’s using those greenhouses to grow vegetables for his business, Earth n’ Eats, in Chambersburg, Pa.

The first alternative source Martin gave a try was wood. He has a friend who owns a sawmill, so slab wood was plentiful and nearby. And Martin figured any wood burner would do–expensive or inexpensive–because he assumed his source would burn and create heat efficiently. Unfortunately, his plan did not work.

“We smoked up the whole area,” Martin says, “and we simply could not get enough heat out of that burner. A really good wood burner is very expensive–of course, I didn’t get a good one–and the slab wood was not a good source of fuel. It doesn’t have a lot of heat in it. It was very embarrassing, with fire trucks coming out here to put out a fire.”

Lesson No. 1 learned. Lesson No. 2 comes in the form of corn. The same manufacturer that sold Martin the wood burner also offers the corn boilers. Martin talked to another grower burning corn, learned that grower liked it and decided to give a corn boiler a try.

But when Martin bought his corn boiler, the price of corn skyrocketed like the propane that motivated him to explore alternative energy sources in the first place. He recalls corn priced between $2 and $3 per bushel moving above $4 per bushel at the time he launched the system. Even worse, the boiler he invested in was a prototype that had its kinks, and Martin discovered burning corn is even more challenging than burning wood.

“Corn is out,” Martin says adamantly. “Anybody who wants to put corn in a boiler does not know what they’re doing. Corn does not burn well. If you dry it down really well, it will burn–and there’s nice, dry heat there. But if you just buy corn out of the bin and think you’re going to burn it–and you need a lot of heat–you’re going to be disappointed.”

Being alert when manufacturers present facts and figures is key. Wood, corn or coal may burn so many BTUs at their peak forms, but the fuel you load into your boiler may not have the components to produce maximum heat. Moisture content, Martin found, is one major factor he should have considered. Devising a plant to handle and store fuel is another key factor.

Martin ultimately transitioned to coal because it’s the most economical, he says, and he’s producing twice as many BTUs with coal as he was with wood. Whether you agree coal is an acceptable source to burn is a separate point. The points you should take away are do your homework and don’t fall in love with convenience or cost. Find the system that fits you.

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